In Les Miserables, one of the Protagonists, Fantine, attacks a citizen on the open street after he insulted her and put snow in the back of her dress. She is then arrested by Javert, the local police chief. In his office, he sentences her to six months of prison for attacking that man. The book tells us that he can do that and that it's within his power to sentence a prostitute to prison. Then the mayor, M. Madeleine, steps in and orders him to release the captive. So my question is:

  1. Why did a police chief have the power to sentence a criminal to jail time without a trial in the first place? I thought that there already were proper criminal courts in France at the time. Shouldn't she be put in front of one of those?

  2. Why does the mayor have the power to step in? Was criminal justice part of a mayor's job at that time?

I don't know whether this question is better suited for the literature or the history board, please forgive me if I'm mistaken for putting it here.

  • 2
    I don't know if this would be on-topic at History, but historical context for a work of literature is definitely within this site's purview. Maybe the answer is "it isn't historically accurate, but fits the purpose of the story because ..." which would be a literary rather than historical answer. Interesting question!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Oct 22, 2020 at 7:53
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    Wild guess would be that the police and mayor can work as a judge in cases of petty crimes (such as this one) without bothering the courthouse. Fantine is definitely guilty (at least on Javert's eyes) so there would be no need to go with the whole court case, especially since she is just a prostitute (hence not an upstanding citizen), so she probably can be sentenced without a proper trial because she is just a "street scum". Madelaine could then counter Javert's ruling because he is technically his superior.
    – Yasskier
    Commented Oct 27, 2020 at 3:08

1 Answer 1


If you are asking about the historical reasons, then asking in History.SE might be better. From the literature point of view the answer lies in text:

This class of women is consigned by our laws entirely to the discretion of the police. The latter do what they please, punish them, as seems good to them, and confiscate at their will those two sorry things which they entitle their industry and their liberty

‘Take three men and conduct this creature to jail.’ Then, turning to Fantine, ‘You are to have six months of it.’

So it seems that Javert is legally able to sentence a prostitute to jail. Notice - "jail", not "prison":

We define prison as “a place of confinement especially for lawbreakers”, and jail as “a place of confinement for persons held in lawful custody.[...]Prison is “an institution (such as one under state jurisdiction) for confinement of persons convicted of serious crimes” and jail is “such a place under the jurisdiction of a local government (such as a county) for the confinement of persons awaiting trial or those convicted of minor crimes.Source

Even in current world, police can send you to jail for a short time (24-48 hours, depending on country) without conviction.

As for the mayor stepping in: he can override Javert's rule, because mayor is the chief of police - Javert's boss and appears to have legal rights to do so:

Then M. Madeleine folded his arms, and said in a severe voice which no one in the town had heard hitherto:— ‘The matter to which you refer is one connected with the municipal police. According to the terms of articles nine, eleven, fifteen, and sixty-six of the code of criminal examination, I am the judge. I order that this woman shall be set at liberty.


I've asked this question on History.SE: it seems that the actions depicted in the book are possible for one strange reason - prostitution was a crime that was tolerated, but also punished without a trial:

The legality of prostitution was left conveniently vague; women were, however, allowed to engage in the trade so long as they followed police regulations governing their conduct. Violation of the rules resulted in something euphemistically referred to as "administrative detention," or imprisonment without trial.

The arrested woman had no recourse to a court of law. Indeed, she was for all intents and purposes already placed outside the law by the very fact of her accusation. As soon as the commissaire in her quartier had written up a procès-verbal of the offense, the woman was arbitrarily subject, as a report of 1819 puts it, "to incarceration by administrative decision." Her hearing before the Bureau of Morals was a purely procedural matter.

  • Interesting point about the distinction between "jail" and "prison"; I never knew there was a difference in meaning. Important question though: does this distinction also exist in the original French, or was it a translator's choice?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 6:53
  • @Randal'Thor I believe there is - Fantine is supposed to be locked in a cell which seems is somewhere near the police station. In contrast Valjean was convicted and sent to a much further away place. The former would be a local town jail, the latter - a state controlled prison.
    – Yasskier
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 19:43
  • Oh god, I'm so sorry, I somehow didn't see your answer in time to award it the bounty. It's entirely my fault for not looking diligently before it expired. Thankfully, you probably still got it due to SE's rules about that. Thanks for your answer, anyways! That seems very plausible.
    – DLCom
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 19:30
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    The distinction between jail and prison is something the translator added @Randal'Thor. The original French uses the word prison which covers both. French doesn't have a distinction like jail/prison. (There are technical words for different kinds of prisons but they aren't in common use — which doesn't mean Hugo wouldn't have used them, but he used prison — and the distinction is not the same as in English: a maison d'arrêt holds both suspects before their trial and condemned people serving short sentences). Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 20:26
  • A police officer in France can jail you for up to 72 hours (4 days), officially only for terrorism, drug trafficking, or organized crime, but demonstrators and journalists were subjected to it. justice.gouv.fr/justice-penale-11330/lenquete-judiciaire-11332/…
    – thecarpy
    Commented Oct 16, 2021 at 12:02

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